MOVIE REVIEW: Justice League Is the DC Movie You Probably Weren't Expecting
Is this the pivot the DCEU needed?
(SPOT.ph) Justice League is the work of two directors. Even though Zack Snyder (300, Watchmen) gets solo billing in the credits, the fingerprints of Joss Whedon (The Avengers), who was brought in to help finish the film following Snyder’s exit in the wake of a family tragedy, are all over the latest entry in the DC Extended Universe. Warner Bros. had started off the DC Extended Universe (DCEU) on the wrong foot. Looking to replicate Disney’s success with their Marvel cinematic universe, Warner Bros. misfired with the problematic Green Lantern in 2011 which employed the same humor and saturated color palette as Marvel. The reactionary Warner Bros. then looked to Christopher Nolan’s critically acclaimed and commercially successful Dark Knight trilogy and decided to pursue the same grim, austere tonality of those films for its own shared superhero universe. Warner Bros. brought in Snyder, who made a name for himself with his signature visual style, to act as architect for the DCEU.
It was a move that didn’t pay off as well as Warner Bros. had hoped as the first three films in this universe, Man of Steel (2013), Batman v Superman (2016), and Suicide Squad (2016) were widely panned by critics and, although they made money for the studio, fell below expectations at the box office. The missteps are attributed largely to Snyder’s grim vision of heroism and bleak, desaturated visuals. Nolan made it work because it was Batman, a hero steeped in angst and born from tragedy. When Snyder tried to apply the same brooding, melancholy tone to Superman, it was jarring for audiences who have a completely different idea of the world’s first superhero. Snyder, simply, got Superman wrong. When you get Superman wrong, everything goes wrong. But Warner Bros. is nothing if not reactive, and they finally got things right with Wonder Woman earlier this year. Helmed by Patty Jenkins, Wonder Woman was a break from the bleak tonality and hopelessness of the DCEU. While Batman v Superman and Suicide Squad attempted to course-correct in little ways, Wonder Woman proved to everyone—from the critics to the studio—that hopefulness was the right direction.
This is the point of Justice League. Justice League embodies hope, and it’s the overarching theme of the film from beginning to end. Whedon’s touches come out in the humor of the script and the camaraderie between the heroes, and it balances out the dramatic parts rather nicely. The opening sequence in slow motion with Sigrid’s cover of Leonard Cohen’s "Everybody Knows" is signature Snyder, and sets the mood for change. Superman has died, and the world has been plunged into darkness. If Superman wasn’t quite the ray of hope audiences wanted in Man of Steel and Batman v Superman, Justice League certainly made sure to gaslight us all that he was. The film opens with footage of Superman (Henry Cavill) filmed by a bunch of kids for their vlog, to impress upon us all that he was always approachable. It’s a stark contrast to the godlike figure Snyder had crafted in the first two films, and it works. Justice League finally gives us the Superman we’ve always wanted, and that alone makes the film a marked improvement from past entries in the DCEU. There’s an important bit of dialogue where Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) tells Alfred (Jeremy Irons) that the world needs Superman because Superman was more human than he was. This Whedonesque bit upends what Snyder had built Superman to be: distant and unrelatable.
Superman’s absence was an open invitation to Steppenwolf (voiced by Ciaran Hinds) to return to Earth to try and reclaim the Mother Boxes, objects of immense power that, when combined, reshape planets. By any measure, Steppenwolf is a bland, generic antagonist present only as a world-ending threat intended to give Batman an excuse to bring together the other members of the Justice League, namely Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), Aquaman (Jason Momoa), Flash (Ezra Miller), and Cyborg (Ray Fisher). He gets just enough screen time to show that he’s too much for the Amazons and Atlanteans to handle, which means Batman has to bring in the heavy hitters. The heaviest hitter being Superman, who happens to be dead. But this being the world of comics, where heroes don’t stay dead for long, we’re treated to one of the most entertaining scenes when he returns a little disoriented and can’t tell friend from foe. One of the best moments to watch out for here is Flash’s realization of how truly powerful Superman is.
While the narrative is shaky and the plot light, the whole film is a visual delight. There is no shortage of action set pieces, and one of the best ones is set in Themyscira, Wonder Woman’s home, as the Amazons led by Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen) try to keep one of the Mother Boxes away from Steppenwolf. Snyder ups the ante here with Amazon acrobatics, shows of strength, and fun with bows and arrows. There is also a Lord of the Rings-style epic battle told in a flashback that’s a treat for eagle-eyed fans who will spot some comic favorites (or versions thereof) in the grand melee. This is Warner Bros. returning to form.
Clearly, the direction they’d set with Snyder at the helm led the universe astray, but with Wonder Woman and now Justice League, WB shows that they listen and learn. There was some concern when Junkie XL, the protege of Dark Knight trilogy composer Hans Zimmer, who was also behind the score for Man of Steel and BvS, was replaced by Warner Bros. veteran Danny Elfman. But the score is one of the film’s high points, and his homages to the classics is an absolute treat. Elfman, who composed the iconic score for the 1989 Batman with Michael Keaton, harkens back to his own work and references John William’s score for Superman and Junkie XL’s guitar riff for Wonder Woman. It’s these thoughtful touches that aurally and symbolically indicate that Warner Bros. recognizes its roots. That it remembers what heroes are actually supposed to be. The music helps remind us that, from here on out, everything will be okay.
The moments of levity that were conspicuously absent from the first installments of the dour Snyder-crafted DCEU give Justice League a completely different pulse from its predecessors. Ezra Miller shines as the Flash, whose scenes with his incarcerated father (Billy Crudup) provide some of the film’s most genuinely touching moments and whose one-liners provide some of the funniest. There’s a light-heartedness to Justice League that brings about memories of Saturday morning cartoons. The banter, the cooperation between teammates in battle, and the dynamic between the heroes is refreshing and real. Wonder Woman is at once gentle and kind, acting as the glue among highly strung individuals and their male egos. She has a different vibe and chemistry with each member, as seen in the way she soothes an agitated Cyborg and holds her own as the only woman in the team.
For all the criticisms against Snyder, the one thing he has gotten right is casting. It was a stroke of genius to cast Jason Momoa (Game of Thrones) as Aquaman, a superhero who had been the butt of jokes for decades. Justice League tackles this head on, as Batman asks, “Do you talk to fish?” To which Aquaman answers, “The water does the talking,” with such confidence and machismo that it all but guarantees an end to the jokes. Momoa‘s rugged charm and swoon-worthy physique brings audiences an Aquaman that people will genuinely love and root for.
Justice League is a bit clunky in parts, no doubt a result of course-correction during production, but it manages to hold together until the end. There’s a moderate amount of drama, copious amounts of action, and just enough sprinkling of comedy. It lacks a truly compelling bad guy, but when the fists are flying, guns are blazing, swords are slashing (and tridents thrusting), you won’t really care. This film is fun in a way no other DCEU film has been so far. Wonder Woman was genuinely positive and inspiring, but Justice League adds unbridled joy to the mix. These are the Super Friends, the heroes we’ve always wanted to see on the big screen. Superman returns from the dead and he seems to have left his angst and broodiness buried underground. He is bright, colorful, and smiling. This is Superman as we’ve never seen him before, and it’s glorious. When the Justice League fights, they fight like a team, not a ragtag assemblage of heroes, and it’s a joy to watch.
The mid-credits scene is a wonderful treat to comic fans who will no doubt recognize the comics it was inspired from, while the stinger at the very end is actually something worth sitting through the credits for, unlike some of the recent Marvel post-credit scenes which seem to have been made for the sake of simply having something to show. Lois Lane’s monologue at the end encapsulates, almost heavy-handedly, Warner Bros. position with the DCEU. Basically, she narrates, the DCEU was plunged in darkness, but has now seen the light. The heroes we know and love are finally here, and the future looks bright.